You’ll notice certain signs when people at your company stop caring. They might be physical things. Torn seats in the cafeteria that never seem to get fixed. The receptionist desk that’s still there, empty, long after they laid off the receptionist.
Or the signs might be subtler. The routine silence and lack of eye contact in the crowded elevators. The insidious acceptance of bureaucracy and waste because, well, that’s just the way things are around here.
But take heart. Even if you recognize these signs, there’s still something you can do.
"Entropy made visible"
What’s happened to companies is what has happened to many urban and suburban areas. James Kunstler, who authored a history of American suburbia and urban development, described the consequences as “entropy made visible.” He points out the block-long, windowless civic building. The too-wide street devoid of pedestrians. The gray school surrounded by barbed wire and a lone shrub. In his TED talk, he notes how, historically, creating places people cared about was made possible by a culture of civic design - a body of knowledge, methods, skills, and principles that “we threw in the garbage when...we decided we didn’t need that any more.”
“When you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there...
We can’t overestimate the amount of despair we are generating with places like this...Places that people don’t want to be in. Places that are not worth caring about.”
And the same is true for our corporations. We discarded some of the age-old principles of what motivates and engages people. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten we should be designing organizations for the benefit of the human beings in them.
Gradually, then suddenly
This is something that happens to firms over time. Seth Godin used the phrase “gradually and then suddenly” to describe “how companies die, how brands wither.”
“...every day opportunities are missed, little bits of value are lost, customers become unentranced. We don't notice so much, because hey, there's a profit. Profit covers many sins. Of course, one day, once the foundation is rotted and the support is gone, so is the profit. Suddenly, apparently quite suddenly, it all falls apart.
It didn't happen suddenly, you just noticed it suddenly.”
Something we can all do
Luckily, caring at work doesn’t have to come from the HR department or the CEO. Although the place I work in has a lot in common with other large firms, every day I get to see a bit of magic from individuals on our collaboration platform. Without changing the furniture, we’ve created the best office design for people caring and wanting to work together. It's a virtual place that, unlike most office space, is people-centered. It's a space where people say:
“it’s easier to connect with people.”
“you can bring your full self to work”
“it allows people to show their humor and warmth”
Amidst the usual corporate systems and processes, we have people who care. They’re Working Out Loud, actively trying to make work better. They're pointing out #brokenwindows and offering solutions. They’re celebrating the work of others (especially on #thankyouthursdays). Our streams are full of people leading with generosity and contribution - and they care even more as a result.
“Being able to help someone you haven’t met or who is very far away is amazing.”
Whether or not you have such a platform, you can have some of these experiences. They all start with individuals caring enough to participate, connect, and use the voice they have for something positive. The medium for that can be your next email, your next meeting, or your next trip in the elevator.
Gradually, then suddenly. Seth Godin noted that the process can work for good, too.
“The flipside works the same way. Trust is earned, value is delivered, concepts are learned. Day by day we improve and build an asset, but none of it seems to be paying off. Until one day, quite suddenly, we become the ten-year overnight success.
This is the way it works, but we too often make the mistake of focusing on the 'suddenly' part. The media writes about suddenly, we notice suddenly, we talk about suddenly.
That doesn't mean that gradually isn't important. In fact, it's the only part you can actually do something about.”
Just as things can decay, things can change for the better for you and for your firm. It can start with you, caring enough to contribute and connect.